THE NERONIAN PROBLEM
The Bible claims that God gives political power to whomever He pleases, “even to the basest of men.” He “removes kings and installs kings,” including rulers we may dislike. Christians who assume certain politicians should hold power presume upon God’s prerogative, and this is especially problematic in democratic systems.
Paul exhorted Christians residing in Rome to respect magistrates, obey the emperor, and pay taxes. Existing authorities “have been arranged by God,” therefore, anyone who opposes the government opposes the “arrangement of God.” And he wrote this when Rome was ruled by a notorious despot, Emperor Nero — (Romans 13:1–7).
We tend to agree with Paul’s guidelines when we approve of the government and its policies. But when we disapprove, we begin to seek and even invent loopholes in his words.
For example, the famous New Testament Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, commented in his Word Picture in the New Testament that “Paul is not arguing for the divine right of kings or for any special form of government, but for government and order. Nor does he oppose here revolution for a change of government, but he does oppose all lawlessness and disorder.”
But nothing in Paul’s words allows for violent revolution, which, if anything, is the exact opposite of “law and order.” Moreover, if we take it upon ourselves to advocate for a “change of government,” we are, in fact, “opposing the arrangement of God.” How do we know whom God desires to run the government?
And this passage follows Paul’s exhortation not to take vengeance into our own hands. If we are disciples of Jesus, we must NOT “render to any man evil for evil.” Instead, we are summoned to leave judgment and justice in the hands of God. Believers must “not be overcome by evil, but instead, overcome evil with good.” To argue that Paul then approved of taking the law into our own hands by overthrowing the government because it became abusive is implausible — (Romans 12:17–21).
Moreover, such interpretations read modern democratic ideas into the Apostle’s words. At the time he wrote them, Christians had few if any civil “rights,” and they certainly had no “right” or ability to elect their political overlords or influence Roman policies. Christianity was not recognized by the government as a legal religion, and the emperor was no champion of democracy, religious rights, freedom of speech, or other individual and civil liberties. Yet Paul warned Christians that to oppose THAT government constituted opposition to God’s “arrangement.”
But the real problem with attempts to water down Paul’s words is Nero. At the time he wrote to the church at Rome, the empire was ruled by Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (reigned A.D. 54–68), one of the most despotic emperors in Roman history, a man who had his own mother murdered, kicked his pregnant wife to death, and became the first emperor to persecute the Church.
Nevertheless, Paul summoned the Christians of Rome to honor, respect, and obey THAT man’s government. And rather ironically, he very likely was executed by Nero’s government when the emperor launched his pogrom against the Christians of Rome.
Moreover, Paul was arguing on solid scriptural grounds. The book of Daniel, for example, began by declaring that Yahweh GAVE Jerusalem and the “vessels of the house of God” into the “HAND of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon,” the same pagan autocrat who later destroyed the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalem, and the Temple, and exiled a great many Jews to Mesopotamia — (Daniel 1:1).
No patriotic Israelite would have elected THAT idol-worshipping tyrant to govern Judah. Nevertheless, with this very king in mind, Daniel praised Yahweh as the one who “removes kings and sets up kings,” and even announced to Nebuchadnezzar himself that “You are the king of kings, for the God of Heavens has GIVEN YOU the kingship, the might, the power, and the dignity; and wherever the sons of men dwell, the wild beasts of the field and the birds of the air has HE GIVEN into your hand and made you ruler over them all.”
God’s hand is not limited. He can save by many or few, and He is well able to employ evil, good, mediocre, and just plain incompetent kings and politicians to achieve His purposes. And only He sees the “end from the beginning” and knows what is in every man’s heart.
Neither the form of government nor the nefarious schemes of world rulers can derail His plans. Furthermore, the downfall of dozens of great empires throughout history, often suddenly and unexpectedly, demonstrates that He can remove them whenever He pleases.
When we declare that God is opposed to a government or policy we do not like, and therefore, we must oppose it, how do we know that is, in fact, His will? Just because a political candidate or party is “good” to our way of thinking does not mean that God has chosen him or it to hold political power.
And despite its many faults and abuses, the Roman Empire did several things that helped pave the way for the rapid expansion of the gospel, including building a system of empire-spanning roads and shipping routes, things that directly benefited the missionary efforts of the Apostle Paul.
The very fact that God used the idol-worshipping king Nebuchadnezzar and the murderous emperor Nero to achieve His plans and called His people to submit respectfully to either man’s government ought to caution Christians against presuming to know who God wishes to run the government in whichever country they reside.
[Published originally at christorcaesar.org]
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